*This post was originally published on Word Magazine on August 06 2013.
Residents driving through the intersection of Dien Bien Phu and Xo Viet Nghe Tinh in Binh Thanh have recently been relieved by improved traffic conditions. The better traffic flow is the result of the light steel, car-and-truck overpass constructed in late 2012, which loops over the roundabout that sits at the centre of what was once a congestion hotspot. But this absence of gridlock is not the only change. The 16-metre-tall, solar-powered eyesore of a clock monument that used to sit proudly on the roundabout is also dearly missed.
Contrary to what one might think, the lost opportunity for time-checking is not what causes a sense of nostalgia among those having to drive through the intersection on their daily route. The clock only showed the correct time on certain mysterious days —contingent on an unknown pattern of lunar activity — and even when you picked the right moment to look up, the time varied depending on which of the clock’s four faces you chose to look at.
But the clock’s brutalist design is not an image one comes across just to forget moments later. Despite its short history with one of the busiest intersections in the city — it was erected in 2010 — the clock monument became an indispensable part of the local landscape. Most people were surprised by how young it actually was. Its design transferred a false feeling of age and timelessness, as though it had been around since the French era or even earlier, conceived and built by someone with good intentions but not so much skill or taste. Like a young boy wearing grandpa’s clothes to boost his adult cred, the clock amused those whom it came into contact with just as much as it confused them.
The nostalgic experience need not take long, though. Continue a few hundred metres down Dien Bien Phu, and you will find yourself struggling to keep your wheels straight — at the roundabout with Nguyen Binh Khiem the horrific sight of the same old clock monument will strike your eyes. Pretty much like Beatrix Kiddo in Kill Bill (minus the attractiveness), the clock and its resilience are disturbingly entertaining. Without any prior notice, the clock made its quiet reappearance at yet another busy intersection in the city — now with synchronised time on all four faces. Yet it still runs seven minutes late.
Half Past Sensible
The bizarre details surrounding this monument may prompt geeky minds with a love for fiction to picture a thriller plot. Mafia gangs use the clock to exchange top-secret information thanks to a secret trading code by means of the different times shown on the monument’s four faces. The fact that it was erected by a private corporation only intensifies the level of kookiness. Surrealist novel fans may find themselves fantasising about being in a classic Haruki Murakami plot where they are, upon receiving a strange phone call, sent off on a quest to find the secret coding theme behind the random times shown by all the equally hideous clock monuments around Vietnam. Plus or minus a mysterious woman with an ear fetish and an unusual name, they might discover a portal with a secret passageway to a parallel world where the only way for them to come back to the real world is to have weird sex with a precocious teenager to a backdrop of Nat King Cole’s Unforgettable.
And this is where it gets really weird — there actually are equally (if not more) dreadful clock monuments around Vietnam, built by the very same corporation, as part of its corporate social responsibility initiative. With an aim to “improve the overall landscape” of the cities and provinces in which it operates, the corporation donates these clock monuments for free to local authorities, building an impressive portfolio of public clocks all around the country.
While the aesthetic component of these socially responsible works lies in the eye of the beholder, in marketing terms it’s not a bad idea to maximise brand exposure and recognition by putting your name out in the open. And in the Vietnamese clock-making business, a brand’s perceived credibility is associated with its visibility in the public domain.
Saigon’s Big Ben
But downtown, especially in the area around Ben Thanh market, the people’s public clock needs change. Saigon’s one and only symbol — at least according to the latest designs of tourists’ T-shirts — builds its unique identity around the hyper-exact clock monument at the South Gate. Although the market’s long history can be traced back as far as the 17th century, its recent renovations welcomed the replacement of its trademark clock with one of local origin — a GIMIKO clock.
GIMIKO has been a major local clock brand since the 1990s, with a reputation for durability and reliability — mostly as a result of its association with Ben Thanh Market, a place entrenched in Saigon’s history and the day-to-day city itself. The clock rarely goes wrong despite the moody weather, and looks as though it’s been there since the beginning of the place’s rich history.
So it makes perfect sense for local clock brands aspiring to become household names to stretch their hands out and plant as many clock monuments as they can — whether they’re really good at it or not. Upon its completion in 2010, the clock monument presently at the intersection of Dien Bien Phu and Nguyen Binh Khiem was bestowed upon the city’s administration, and given permission to operate for a maximum of 10 years.
So chin up, Saigonese, we only have seven more years to go until a new and hopefully improved clock monument pops up and sets a new rhythm to the everyday life we’re living.